The Vagabond: The South’s first J.C. Penny

November 27, 2019 chris
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By Danny Crownover

The Vagabond recently was walking at the northwest corner of Broad and Third streets in downtown Gadsden. He noticed lettering on the store window that said it was the store was Meeks Building, built in 1879.

The Vagabond was puzzled, as the style and materials of the building was not of that period. For example, the bricks on the building was not made during that time period. The earliest local brick manufacturer was the Chadwick Brick Company on Fourth Street next to Rum Creek. Another early brick company was the Agricola Brick Company that was located in Owls Hollow. The bricks for the Meeks Building were of modern pressed bricks.

The Vagabond did some research and found some answers to share with the readers.

The Meeks Building was named for Col. William Marion Meeks, who bought the city’s local newspaper in 1869. Meeks was not only the paper’s owner but was its publisher and editor as well. He was born in 1845 at Floyd County, Ga., and died in 1906 and is buried in Forrest Cemetery.

Since coming to the Gadsden in the early years, Meeks invested heavily in nearby properties. Around 1879, he purchased the property on the northwest corner of Broad and Third streets. He immediately built a small, one-story structure containing two stores. This building is shown in the 1885 Sanborn Insurance map and was called the Meeks Block.

On May 28, 1923, it was announced by the Gadsden Daily Times-News that a lease was closed, whereby Gadsden was to have a fine new business building and a new department store.

As the agent for the late W.M. Meeks estate, J. L. Meeks leased the site on Broad Street to the J. C. Penny Company, Inc., of New York.

A handsome two-story structure would be erected by Mr. Meeks at a cost of approximately $40,000 for the use of the J.C. Penny Company as a retail merchandise house. The contract called for the building to be completed and ready for occupancy on or before September 1, 1923. It would be the finest building in the city and be of handsome de-sign and modern in every respect.

The frontage on Broad Street would be 50 feet and 125 feet on Third Street. The building’s exterior would consist of pressed brick and stone. The fixtures to be furnished and installed by the Grand Rapids Show Case Company which featured all of the fixtures for the J.C. Penny Company.

John K. Davidson, a special representative of the J.C. Penny Company who was in charge of the finding of suitable locations for new stores, spent a week in Gadsden looking over the trade area. He said that the outlook here was one of the most promising for a new business.

J.C. Penny was just getting into the nation’s southern region, and Gadsden was to have the company’s first store located in Alabama.

A $15,000,000 corporation at the time, J.C. Penny was to carry $50,000 in stocks in the Gadsden store, including a complete line of men, women and children ready-to-wear clothing along with shoes and merchandise for the entire family.

On June, 25, 1923, the same local newspaper reported that W.F. Moore, of Murray, Utah, had arrived in Gadsden to supervise the construction and the installation of fixtures for the local J. C. Penney store. He was to be the manager of the Gadsden store when it opened.

On July 3, 1923, the Gadsden Daily Times-News announced that Gadsden well-known contractor, W.H. Mayben, signed a contract with the Meeks estate for the erection of the new two-story brick building. When completed, the building would be one of the most modern in the city and feature all the latest and newest ideas in store construction. Mayben was to start work as soon as the material could be assembled. The contract price was $37,500.

On July 12, , the Gadsden Daily Times-News stated that Mayben had started work the day before on the excavations for the new foundations for the Meeks building. Mayben planned on rushing the work on the new building and work a large crew of men.

The J.C. Penney Company had leased the building for 10 years and was anxious to get in as soon as possible. The fixtures already were ordered and ready to install. The material was being assembled and the erection of the building would go ahead as soon as the foundations were completed.

On Nov. 1, 1923, the Gadsden Daily Times-News reported that, the store would open the next day. It was the first J.C. Penny built south of Ohio and east of the Mississippi River.